Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher

The protagonist of Dear Committee Members--or, since this is an epistolary novel, the epistolarian--is Jason "Jay" Fitger, writer and English professor at a "second-tier" Midwestern university whose support for the liberal arts is dwindling. A graduate of a prestigious writing workshop known as the Seminar, Jay has published several novels to ever-decreasing critical and public acceptance. Working in the midst of a building under renovation (but only on the floors housing the Econ Dept.), Jay cranks out a plethora of letters of recommendation (LORs), which make up the text of the book. He recommends faculty colleagues for awards and appointments and students for jobs, graduate school, and psychological counseling. The through threads in the novel are (1) Jay's effort to find support for one particular graduate student, Darren Browles, who is working on a novel based on Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, but set in a Nevada whorehouse, and (2) his attempts to improve relationships with his ex-wife and former lover, both of whom work on the same campus in positions to make decisions affecting Jay's students.

Jay's letters of recommendation are unusual. First, he does not hesitate to write honestly of mediocre students: "Mr. Trent received a C- in my expository writing class last spring, which--given my newly streamlined and increasingly generous grading criteria--is quite the accomplishment. His final project consisted of a ten-page autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses and his (often futile) attempts to control them. He cited his dentist and his roommate as primary sources." And another: "If Selebritta Online is in need of an editor/copywriter who refuses to allow the demands of honesty or originality to delay her output, it will have found one in the unflappable Ms. Tara Tappani." Second, Jay simply cannot resist the urge to comment disparagingly on the state of the academy, halfheartedly promote his own novels, and ruminate wistfully on his days at the Seminar.

The letters are very funny, in part because of such details as the names of companies to which English majors are applying for jobs (Avengers Paintball, Flanders Nuthouse, Catfish Catering), the topics of papers written by students (one student receives an advance for a novoir or memel--a combination novel and memoir--about her childhood as half girl/half cheetah), and Jay's complimentary closes ("Hoping to maintain a distance of at least one hundred yards," "Yours in digestive health," "With candor, regret, and a whiff of vengeance"). The satire of academic life, while broad, is also effective. Surprisingly, however, the ending is sad, reminding us that the young people for whom Jay writes LORs are, while perhaps not scholarly geniuses, human beings.

Definitely recommended--especially for anyone in academia or publishing.

Favorite passage
What, after all, is a writer's life without a dose of despair? The point is that literary endeavor has always been riddled with frustration but in recent years has become increasingly formidable; ergo my revulsion for programs like yours that, under the false pretense of support, function as succubi draining the bank accounts and lifeblood of unsuspecting students . . .  [Remember, this is a letter of recommendation!]

Fall will arrive soon enough, with requests from students trickling in via email, and the trees that shade Willard Hall flushing red at the hem. There is nothing more promising or hopeful than the start of the academic cycle: another chance for self-improvement, for putting into practice what one learned--or failed to learn--during the previous year.    [From a more serious letter at the end of the book]

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